The annual ritual by Bulgarian politicians to cherry-pick the contents of the European Commission’s Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) progress report on judiciary reform was overshadowed on January 27 by the subject of the resignation call addressed to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), issued by two partners in the four-way government coalition a day earlier.
In separate declarations, GERB and the Reformist Bloc made their respective calls at a brief news conference on the evening of January 26, citing the public rows in which the SJC has been involved as an obstacle preventing the body from fulfilling its functions accorded by law.
The SJC responded with its own declaration on January 27, saying that it “categorically rejects the latest attempt by political forces to blatantly interfere with the work of the independent judicial system”. The council said that the declaration was backed by a vote of 19 in favour, with one against and one abstaining.
The statement quoted SJC member Mihail Kozharev saying that the resignation call had no legal grounds and came only a short time after Parliament gave a vote of confidence to the current line-up of the council by stipulating, as part of the constitutional amendments bill on judiciary reform, that the current members of the SJC would serve out the rest of their terms.
SJC member Kalin Kalpakchiev opposed the council’s declaration, saying that the resignation call deflected attention from the real problems in the judiciary, but the SJC’s answer was “equally hypocritical” and contributed to such a shifting of focus.
In Parliament, the topic of SJC’s resignation drew more reactions than the CVM report, with nationalist Patriotic Front, one of the junior partners in the ruling coalition, saying that it would not add its voice to the resignation call. Krassimir Karakachanov, one of the Patriotic Front group co-chairs, said that it was a “pointless demand” made “five minutes before the European report on progress in the judiciary”, but claimed that the group’s decision was unlikely to cause major disagreement inside the ruling majority.
Socialist splinter group ABC, which is also part of the governing coalition, said that it would make its position public on January 28.
Among opposition parties, socialist leader Mihail Mikov described the resignation call using the same term as the SJC – “blatant interference” in the judiciary – and said it was an attempt by the government to mask its own failures by making the SJC a scapegoat for the judiciary’s problems.
Radan Kanev, leader of the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (a constituent member of the Reformist Bloc that withdrew its support for the cabinet after the constitutional amendments on judiciary reform fell short of the initial proposals), said that his party called for the SJC’s resignation even before the vote on the constitutional amendments, which kept the current line-up of the SJC in office.
Kanev re-iterated his earlier criticism of Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov and Supreme Administrative Court chief Georgi Kolev, two ex officio members of the council, describing them as “architects of the current majority in the SJC” and calling on the two to resign their positions. He singled out Tsatsarov as one of the main targets of the criticism in the CVM report.
Cabinet officials, meanwhile, used a refrain familiar in recent years in their comments on the CVM report. Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kouneva said that the CVM report was “objective” in its assessment and had positive aspects, particularly in praising the judiciary reform and anti-corruption strategies adopted last year.
Speaking to reporters after the Cabinet sitting, Kouneva said that the report was asking for tangible results and the government would focus on achieving that goal in 2016.
Justice Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said that the ministry had prepared an action plan to implement the EC recommendations (becoming the latest in a long list of Bulgarian cabinet ministers to make such a claim), but also called on other state institutions, including the SJC, to accept their share of the criticism in the CVM report.
For its part, the SJC declaration rejecting the resignation calls also touched on the CVM report, saying that “while acknowledging our responsibility, we believe that the recommendations made public today in the EC report must be examined as a whole. Only by sharing responsibility between the institutions of all branches [of government] can we achieve real progress to accomplish the rule of law and increase trust in all bodies of the state.”